Philadelphia’s libraries and recreational centers have been short-staffed for years, but workers say the problem worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, they want the city to allocate funding to keep facilities open in the evenings and on the weekends.
At a Thursday City Hall press conference organized by Council member Helen Gym, library and recreation center workers and their supporters emphasized safe spaces for teens as a way to prevent gun violence. A total of 44 people were shot over Memorial Day weekend, 15 of them fatally, raising concerns that this year’s tally will rival the record-breaking 562 homicides of 2021.
Yvette Robinson, co-chair of Friends of the Free Library, called for a $30 million dollar investment from the 2023 budget to extend library hours and put a child, teen and adult librarian — as well as a digital resource specialist — in every facility.
“A strong library system is essential to providing a safe haven, a valuable neighborhood resource in the fight against gun violence,” she said. “Let’s just get it done.”
Mayor Jim Kenney’s current budget allocates $9.7 million to establish “stable, consistent 5‐day service,” but employees and community activists say that isn’t enough.
On average, about 15% of Philly’s neighborhood libraries can’t fully open each day — about one of every seven branches, according to a Billy Penn analysis. That means facilities are closing early, opening late or not opening on a regularly scheduled day.
There isn’t much research directly tying the presence of libraries and recreation centers to a reduction in gun violence, but many experts argue that improving the built environment and creating a sense of community deters crime. National data shows that violence committed by youth peaks during afterschool hours on weekdays.
Eric Stinson, a South Philly resident who attended the Thursday event, said he believes art programs, sports, and reading can keep young people busy so they don’t engage in dangerous activities.
“Open up the libraries for the kids in the summer, so the kids can have activities and not have to be on the streets,” he said.
A group of Philly teens recently sat down with Philly leaders to ask for more community centers to help them stay out of the line of fire. Several nonprofits have opened spaces for afterschool programs in response to the gun violence crisis.
The mayor’s office is setting aside $55.8 million for the Free Library in the 2023 budget, and a total of $285.2 million over the next five years, citing a vision for “a network of libraries that is responsive to community needs, dedicated to equity, and well-resourced.”
If you or someone you know has been affected by gun violence in Philadelphia, you can find grief support and resources here.